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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Afterburn: The Consequences of an Urban Wildfire


It's been several weeks since a fire tore through our city, destroying 2,800 homes and burning over 57 square miles of surrounding land. Living with the aftermath of a fire like this has put us all through a steep and traumatic learning curve.

The smell of smoke has now been replaced by the smell of ash. On a clear, dry day you catch a whiff on the wind and see it settle on the coffee table if the windows are open. After the rains, it smells strongly like a wet ashtray, kind of pungent and repugnant at the same time. I used to love the smell of rain. I don't so much anymore.

It's haunting to see block after block of destroyed homes. The only thing left standing in the neighborhoods that burned are the chimneys, the fire was so hot everything else was reduced to ash. Even the cars sort of melted into the ground: tires burned off the rims, glass windows melted and fused, interiors completely burned away. Driving through the streets is like driving through a graveyard, but one so raw and abandoned it's as if they forgot to bury the dead. It feels disrespectful to even look at the blackened ruins, the raw emotional loss of those who lost homes on full display.

Everyday, I drive by a mobile home park that was almost completely destroyed. Sadly, two people died there, unable to get out in time. The park has been there my whole life, tucked into the corner at the intersection of two busy streets, flanked by a hospital on one side and the highway at its back. It used to have a fence blocking the view from the street and lots of mature trees and shrubs along it's borders. It's strange to look across it now, only the twisted frames and burned out cars interrupting the view all the way to the highway traffic. I worry the owner will decide to sell the lot to retail developers. Where will our fixed income folks live?


We're learning that even something as hot as a wind-whipped wildfire can have a snowball effect. Having approximately 8,400 people suddenly become homeless puts a huge strain on a rental market that already only had about a 1% vacancy rate. While many people have been quite generous, opening their homes to victims, sharing extra rooms and food and beds, other rental owners have been quietly raising their rates.

Homes that were once vacation rentals were taken off the market and offered as a more permanent housing option. This, in combination with losing two of our biggest hotels to the flames, has reduced options for tourists. Now, even if we can convince tourists to come visit, there are far fewer places to stay while they're here.

In at least one instance I personally heard about, a couple that lost their home to the fire turned around and evicted the tenants from their rental home across town, and moved into that house until their burned home can be rebuilt. This put another family on the street, one that doesn't have the advantage of being able to apply to FEMA or insurance or any other agency since they were not burned out. I am not judging the landlords, I probably would have been forced to do the same in their shoes. It's just another example of the domino effect that seems to amplify the pain.

Traffic on the one highway through town has become a nightmare. A combination of people displaced by the fires moving out of town and now commuting to work and school, and side roads closed due to reconstruction and tree removal have created gridlock for weeks now. The fire burned about a mile of freeway guardrail posts, leaving the rails dangling and twisted. Traffic slows as people gawk at the destruction, and the work crews cutting dead trees and replacing the rails slows traffic even more. I work 8 miles from my home. Some days it takes me an hour door to door.

The fires took place in October, just at the start of our rainy season. The fire burned so hot (up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit) it destroyed all but the biggest and most sturdy trees. Everything holding the soil in place is gone, so one of our major worries is mudslides. The other worry is pollution. When a home burns, so of course does all its contents. Think of all the cans of paint, fertilizer, cleaning products, plastics, medications, etc. that are laying around your house. Multiply that by 2800 then imagine trying to keep all the chemicals from washing into the creeks and rivers. The wood ash alone can clog a creek and kill all the critters living there. Crews went out and staked wattles (large tubes filled with hay) to try to keep hillsides from sliding and ash from washing into storm drains. During our last big downpour, the restricted flow caused by the wattles around the storm drains ended up flooding the streets.

Speaking of storm drains, in the newer housing neighborhoods in the hills, a modern plastic drainage system was used. The fire melted the drainage lines underground, and during the heavy rains opened up sinkholes and small mudslides when the water tried to find a route around the melted and sealed conduits. Underground cable lines also melted, and many of the power and cable networks will need to be replaced.

Mark's work was partially destroyed by the fire, and the rest of the buildings had smoke and water damage. He has been working seven days a week since, part of a team trying to coordinate a huge cleanup/recovery effort they never imagined they'd have to face. Everything—from the cubicle walls to the high tech clean room equipment—must be scrubbed, repaired/replaced, tested and brought back to production. One hundred and thirty of the 1200 employees lost their homes. Half of the employees have yet to go back to work, not having a place that's safe or functional enough to do their jobs. One bright spot in all this; they are all being paid throughout this process.

A couple of major retail stores and fast-food restaurants burned down. Those workers are not so lucky. Many are not only out of a home but out of a job as well. I'm not sure we'll recover soon, if at all, from the loss of this important sector of our population. How can a person making $11/hour pay for an apartment that's $1600/month (if they can even find one)? I have no doubt they will rebuild the two fancy hotels that burned down. I'm just not sure who's going to change the sheets.

Since tourism is down, so are the revenues of the remaining stores and restaurants. As we enter the holiday season, many of those that lost their homes don't have money for gifts and meals out. They have to use what resources they have to replace what they've lost, and must wait for insurance money to do that. This, in turn, is leading to less income for the workers who rely on tips and holiday jobs to get them through the season.

The magnitude of the homes that were lost will put a giant dent in the property tax revenues, the very taxes that support the fire departments we need to keep this from happening again. This fire cost an enormous amount of money to fight, and they are already in a deficit.

One of the worst side affects of the fire is the mental anguish it has caused. Already, one of the victims has committed suicide, right on the site of his burned home. I can see how the shock of losing everything you own, right before the holidays, and the daunting prospect of wading through years of rebuilding would be too much to take. The victim was 70 years old, at a point in life when things should be getting easier, not harder. Unfortunately I can see how this might happen again, although I really hope it doesn't.

Even those of us that haven't lost our homes are affected. There is an awful, haunted undercurrent to living here now. When going about our day to day business, our initial greeting has become "Are you ok? Do you have a home?" There's a little guilt to saying yes, we are fine, and a little untruth. No, we are not fine. We're traumatized. Each day is a little better, and some mornings it's not the first thing I think about. But then I drive to work, sitting in standstill traffic, staring at the homes and businesses that are no more and think, how did this happen?

Eventually, the ashes will be cleared and the homes will be rebuilt. The traffic will calm down, the wet ashtray smell will vanish and that nagging dry cough that developed after inhaling smoke for two weeks will subside. The undertone of sadness will fade, and things will settle into routine.

Somehow though, I don't think our routine will ever be exactly the same again.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Fall Tour of the Sierras: Bridgeport, Bodie and the June Lakes Loop

Aspens highlight the contours on the flanks of the Eastern Sierras
If forced to choose a favorite season, I'd definitely choose summer. I love the sunny days and warmer nights and the fact that it's the best time to camp in the mountains. But autumn is a close second on my list, and this year Mom and I decided to take a road trip to see what the Eastern Sierras have to offer in the foliage department.

The Western Sierras get a lot of press: Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Tahoe, Donner Lake, the list goes on. I love those places, but they are kind of loved to death most of the year. For our road trip we decided to travel a little farther (hopefully away from the crowds) and visit some of my favorite getaways along Highway 395. Besides, when Mark and I were there during the previous summer I saw a really cool pamphlet touting the fall color in the area. The Inyo/Mono County Tourism Board scored on that one.

(image credit: Inyo and Mono Counties)
The pamphlet had informed us every year is different; the fall color season can be spectacular in early September, or stretch out into mid October, or if the rains come too soon it might not be much of anything at all. I had kept my fingers crossed for weeks, watching the weather forecast and checking the tourism websites for updates (yes, there is actually a website for this at http://www.californiafallcolor.com of course!).

I couldn't convince Mom to camp along the way—truth be told I didn't try too hard, it's cold up there in October!—so I booked some rooms along the way. If you plan to do this, a little advice: this area is a bit more popular than I realized in autumn, so book early, especially if you're picky about the lodgings. It might have been easier to camp, although many of the campgrounds were closed for the season at the end of September.

We drove up and over Monitor Pass, stopping for lunch in Markleeville for some delicious Mexican food at a little cafe. I had never had the chance to stop here, save for the quaint old general store and a quick swim in Grover's Hot Springs once, so it was fun to explore the tiny, one street town. Just out of town we found our first hint of what was to come: The first look at some aspens that were turning golden along Poor Boy Creek. We stopped at a turnout and took some photos before continuing up to the pass.

Aspens mix it up with the pines outside of Markleeville

A couple of big wildfires have burned through the Monitor Pass area in the last few years, the most recent just last August, so the flora on the way over was somewhat limited. Once we got down to the turnoff to Highway 395 though, the trees started making an appearance again. Things were looking very promising. We stopped at a day use area along the Walker River and watched the water flow by for a bit. This year's snowfall was near record breaking and there was still snow on the highest peaks that made for some beautiful scenery and a fast flowing river.

The Walker River
Mom brushes up on the ecology of the Walker River ecosystem
Our first stop was Bridgeport, where we had reserved rooms at the Bridgeport Inn. We couldn't check in until four though, so we took a tour around Twin Lakes first. It was not nearly as crowded as during the summer months but there were still a considerable amount of fisherman there tooling around on kayaks and small boats. It was a picture perfect day.
Upper Twin Lake, where the trees were just starting to turn.

The view from one of my room windows.
Bridgeport courthouse



The Bridgeport Inn has a line of motor-lodge type rooms behind the original inn but, being the old-house fanatic I am, I wanted to stay in the circa 1877 building. Our rooms were cozy, and the bathrooms impossibly small, but I loved it. The carpets were bright red, the curtains frilly, and the furniture old-timey—a very Victorian experience. Added bonus? It's supposed to be haunted.

It was darn cold that morning, 25 degrees. These flowers had turned
to popsicles in the sprinkler spray on the courthouse lawn.

We got up early the next day and walked across the street to the High Sierra Bakery where Mom got "the best maple bar there ever was." (Don't challenge this statement; Mom is an expert when it comes to maple flavored anything.) I had a delicious sticky bun, covered with candied pecans. It was the perfect way to start the day, although Mom deeply regretted not getting a maple bar to go.

This is the look you get when keeping her
from eating her maple bar













Our mission that day was to find some serious fall color and visit Bodie Historic State Park. It's one of my favorite places in the world and when I found out Mom had never been, there was no question we'd be going there.

First we drove up the gravel road Mark and I had explored that summer just outside of town. I had seen a cluster of aspens then, and was hoping there would be even more farther up the canyon. Mom was a sport; we had to go several miles up the rough dirt road and even make a few small stream crossings to get there (did I mention we were driving her car?). It paid off though; an old mill pond and a lovely creek flowed through a stand of bright yellow aspens. We took a short trail to check out the pond. As we were leaving a couple pulled up in an old truck and started gearing up to go fly fishing. I made a mental note to bring Mark here next year to try our luck.

Mom on the trail to the pond
The pond on Green Creek
Aspens lining Green Creek, the snow covered Sierras in the background.
Bodie was great, as it always is. I made Mom pose for me here and there, and she read me the points of interest from the guide booklet we got at the gate. It was nice to have a tour guide: I'm usually the one trying to read the excerpts to Mark while trying to catch my breath in Bodie's 8400' elevation.

This giant fly wheel greets you on arrival to Bodie State Park

Mom's ready for a lift, mining style.

One of the nicest houses in town.
Doesn't this photo just make you want to yell "Shane! Come back!"
A cabin room is reflected in a hutch mirror
Mom takes a rest from her tour guide gig in front of the IOOF building, Bodie State Park
Once back out on the road, one of the most spectacular sights was from a large turnout on the side of the highway. We pulled over with a number of other cars and gawked at the huge snowy mountains, with the smaller foothills lined with brightly colored trees snaking down the creek beds and crevices (large photo at the top of the blog). It was breathtaking.

Oh, here it is again. I don't think the photo does it justice though.

We explored the road to Virginia Lake and found a lot of color (and people) there. It was a lesson in Fall Color Timing; the trees at the 6000' elevation were just turning, 7500' was full color, and at the top of the road (9000+'), the trees had already dried up and lost most of their leaves. Elevation plays a huge roll in the dynamics of leaf color. Trees are affected by temperature and amount of sunlight during the day, so the cooler temps at night, and days further shortened by the shadows of the mountains lead to the leaves turning more quickly in higher elevations. This effect works its way down the mountains, finally ending in the valleys below. While it would be nice to have the beautiful colors everywhere you go, it's helpful to have the season drawn out, otherwise there would only be a one week window to view them.
I really wanted to go up this gravel road, but it didn't look suitable for a mom-car outing.
Next time we're in the area with our truck we'll make the trek.
I like how crooked the trunks were in this area
We stopped in for some snacks at the general store in Lee Vining, then took our apple and cheese lunch up to the Mono Lake Visitors Center. The back patio has a great view of the lake, and makes a nice spot for a picnic lunch.

Even the cottonwood outside the Mono Lake visitor's center got into the action
Our next stop was the June Lakes loop. This area is jammed packed in the summer with campers and fisherman, and I know it's a popular winter stopover, but I had no idea just how popular it would be during the "off" season. There's a good reason for this; the scenery in the summer is great, but autumn was spectacular!
A colorful valley on the June Lakes loop. Makes you want to yodel, doesn't it?
The aspens seemed to be climbing the granite
It's funny how the trees would grow in patches, something you don't notice in the summer

We stayed at the Whispering Pines motel, which is a funky old resort that looks like it was built in the 50s and renovated promptly in the 80s. They are working on another renovation now, I think, but I liked the funky charm. It kind of reminded me of all my friend's houses when I was growing up. Each room had a little kitchenette, which would have been great had we been staying longer than one night (eating out all the time gets tiresome). They had little cabins for rent too, but there was a three night minimum for those. The view though...that view from the balcony was awesome. The rooms faced a massive granite cliff, resplendent with splotches of fall color and a waterfall to boot. Despite the chilly morning, I stood outside the room, snapping photo after photo of the moon going down over the granite.
Close up you can see the color variations.

The moon was setting over granite cliffs right outside our rooms that morning in June Lakes. Note the waterfall at the left, because the colorful trees and granite and moon weren't enough to make it spectacular.

We finished our trip with a drive up and over Tioga Pass, another first for Mom. I felt privileged to show off Yosemite's high country to her, and on such an incredibly warm and sunny day too. We got really lucky; it had snowed the weekend previous and closed the road, but only for a day or so. It's always touch and go when it comes to the passes in the area at this time of year.

The always beautiful Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park
I had a great time, and I think Mom did too. I know we're related, because the last item on her to-do list for the trip was to stop for a frosty. We found the perfect spot in Oakdale, halfway home.

Enjoying a half & half frosty, Sno White Drive-In, Oakdale CA
We saw a small grass fire just outside of Fairfield on our way home. Little did we know we were in for far worse once we got home. I'm glad we were clueless at the time; it would have spoiled a perfect road trip with my very first traveling partner in life.

Mom, let's do this again soon.

(This trip was taken October 6-8 2017. Since it had been an extremely snowy 2016-2017 winter, the colors were delayed more than usual. Always check the website and other sources before you plan your trip as the ideal timing varies greatly from year to year.)

Saturday, October 14, 2017

From the Ashes

A howling wind beat against the windows of our bedroom, keeping us awake as the branches of our apricot tree snapped on the glass. A loud noise startled us, and Mark got up to check to make sure nothing important had blown over. Just the neighbor's umbrella, go back to sleep.

The first siren went by around 1:00 am or so. Not unusual, we live just a few blocks from one of the largest intersections in town. They rarely register anymore, and our dogs don't even bother to howl at them; even they know they'd go hoarse in a matter of a few hours on the busiest weekends. But soon it was followed by another, then another, until it was a chorus of sirens wailing from all over the city.

Mark's iPhone made that choo-choo sound he set as his text alert, which always puts him in a foul mood. It always means a call from work and it's always some sort of problem.

"Huh. My co-worker says he tried to get to work and they wouldn't let him up the street." Mark scratched his head, then rubbed his beard. He does that a lot when he's frustrated and grumpy.

The train noise sounded again. This time someone who was at work. "He says they're being told to leave, there's a fire coming. He's asking if it's ok to leave." Then his phone rang. Funny how no one actually calls anymore, texting seems to be the preferred method of communication. Except in an emergency.

After he hung up, Mark was wide awake. A deputy had come by the building and told everyone to evacuate, that a fire was coming down the hillside and crews couldn't get there fast enough to stop it. We both put on shorts and ran outside into the warm wind. It was 1:30am.

Looking north from the middle of our street, you could see an ominous orange glow. Smoke was blocking out the stars, and loud booming noises would occasionally sound out making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. This wasn't good.

The sirens continued to scream by on the main street behind our house. They seemed to be going in all directions. Our neighbors started coming outside and standing in the street with us. Everyone was disheveled, wide awake but not ready to believe what was happening.

"It's getting closer."

"How close do you think it is?"

"Should we get ready to leave?"

We went back inside and looked for news. At 2 in the morning, even the most die-hard newscaster is asleep. Nothing was being broadcast, no text alerts, no phone calls. It happened too quickly, and too early in the morning.

Around 5am Mark couldn't stand it anymore, and took a drive down the street. He was stopped about a mile away at the edge of our neighborhood by a road block. He didn't have to ask why; there were flames shooting up from the trees on the not-so-distant hill.

He came home and reported this to the neighbors who were still milling around with the collars of their shirts pulled up over their mouths. The smoke was getting thicker and ash was starting to fall around us. No one had come by to evacuate us, but the decision was made to be ready anyway, things were happening way too fast. Besides, standing around listening to the more frequent and louder booms was spooking us. (These sounds turned out to be propane tanks, transformers and trees, bursting into flames.)

For all my talk of paring down and shedding material things in my life, I wasn't quite prepared to make these decisions at dawn on a Monday morning. In fact, no one should be asked to make any important decision at dawn on a Monday morning, other than whether to hit the snooze button one more time or give up and haul out of bed.

In the end, we packed a few days worth of clothing and I swept the top of the desk into a backpack along with our laptop and backup hard drive and our wedding album. Our passports got stuck in a front pocket and a few bits of jewelry as well. I hoped that at least one of each of our account numbers were included in the stacks of bill stubs I so stubbornly hold onto. For once in my life my messiness might pay off.

We grabbed the dog's food and their bowls and water dish, our sleeping bags and pillows, camera equipment (that was thankfully all in one place having just come back from a trip) and our sundries bag we always take with us when we camp. Our camper always has food, water, blankets, stove, and cooking utensils inside so we'd be fine wherever we ended up. I also filled a bag with canned food, sport drinks and that boxed milk that doesn't spoil.

We didn't have to go. They stopped the fire just about one and a half miles from our house.

For the last four days, we've been on high alert. The fire we saw was the most widespread of the multiple fires that were whipped up by the 60-80 mile per hour gusts that night. They're still going on, and every shift of the wind, every siren that goes by, every text message from the Nixle alert system I signed up for, makes my heart skip a beat.

The toll is still climbing, and the fires continue to burn. An estimated 2000 homes have burned so far, 21 people are confirmed dead, and there are many hundreds missing. We personally know at least 15 families who have lost their homes. One of my co-workers is on the missing list.

I think we have survivors guilt. We didn't lose our home or get evacuated, unlike 50,000 others in our area. We never lost power either, and our natural gas wasn't cut off like many of the neighborhoods nearby. We still have our own bed to sleep in, our own shower to wash the smoke smell out of our hair. Our dogs have a backyard to run around in and we still have drivable cars. Mark's work made it through the fire, although the damage was enough to put them out of commission for at least a few weeks. My work was farther away, escaping the damage but without power for the first few days of the week. I spent my nervous energy baking cookies and making enough meatballs to feed us for four months, stacking containers filled to the brim in the freezer.

The sadness runs deep. I feel horrible for those that lost their homes, the pets that died in the fire because they were scared and didn't come when called. The fires burned so hot, it was unsafe until now to go in and look for the missing. I'm afraid of what they will find.

During the peak of the fires, I was too scared to think much about what was happening, beyond what I needed to do to get away if it got too close. The next morning though, after the most significant danger seemed to pass, I walked outside to check on the house and yard. The smoke was hanging in the air, and a light rain of ash was falling, mimicking the silent, slow falling of snowflakes. Bits of ash were piled up on our front steps, and among them were skeletal leaves, perfectly formed until you touched them and they dissolved into grey dust. Bits of burnt paper and fabric and wood fell on the walkway, all formerly someones books and clothes and home. I tried not to cry.

It's written that the mythical Phoenix rose from the ashes, symbolizing the renewal of life. I'm not a religious person, nor am I much of a believer in mystical or spiritual interpretations of events. I think though, that if any place has a fighting chance to rise again, it's here, my hometown.

We certainly have enough ashes to make a good start.